Your homework, before/after you read this article today, is to take eight minutes and listen to this podcast:
Listen to music excerpt and composer David Lang’s statement by clicking Listen to the whole show on this page. (8 minutes, if you skip the fund raising and stuff at the end.)
After that, if you want to listen to the entire composition without the artist’s comments, you can click on Listen to David Lang’s piece – Départs (18’14”) at the bottom of this page. (18 minutes)
Lang was commissioned to create a very special work of music, to quote the intro at WNYC “Radiolab”:
Imagine that you’re a composer. Imagine getting this commission: “Please write us a song that will allow family members to face the death of a loved one…” Well, composer David Lang had to do just that when a hospital in Garches, France, asked him to write music for their morgue, or “Salle Des Departs.”
Sounds morbid. But this piece is so poignant, I’ve listened to it a dozen times already. (Thank you to Heather Lawless for sharing this example in her recent workshop on artist statements at the Sharon Arts Center in Peterborough, NH.)
Lang’s comments do not comprise a formal “artist statement”. But the story this artist tells about his work, contains the elements of a powerful artist statement.
Lang does not focus on describing his techniques.
He tells enough about his process to make you want to listen more closely to the music. Akin to one definition of a good artist statement, that it “makes you want to go back and look at the art again.”
He tells why composing this piece meant so much to him. “I felt like I’d been waiting my whole life for this opportunity…”
He tells a simple, honest, personal story–about death, loss and grieving–that anyone can relate to.
He shares the effects he used to compose the piece: Music that “cannot be performed live, that is beyond the ability of human beings to perform.” Music he hopes “no one should ever actually have to hear.” These are not semantic word play; they are powerful metaphors for the grief born of of any death–but especially sudden, tragic death.
His goal was to create an environment that, unlike most music, does not tell the listener how to feel or how to act. Instead, it gives permission for the audience to define their own experience. “Here is my contribution. Now I leave you so you can make your own.”
It’s possible someone else might intuitively understand everything he says from the music alone. But I couldn’t. If I’d heard this piece alone, I might think it was pretty, even beautiful.
The power of the artist’s words makes the experience richer, more poignant, and more meaningful. I felt like this artist was taking something deeply important for him, and sharing it with me. I felt that sharing, that connection–and it moved me.
Now, for the artists who want the work to speak for itself, no comment needed from them…. Okay. If you want to split hairs, then yes, Lang says his music does not tell the listener how to feel.
And yes, people listening to it in the room would not hear his words and thoughts overlaid. The music would, indeed, have to “speak for itself”.
But the intended audience is in extreme circumstances, not a concert hall. They are in a situation few of us would wish upon our worst enemy–the last chance to say goodbye to a loved one who will never hear it.
We, the ones with the luxury of sitting back, safely at a distance, and only imagining the horrible circumstances under which we would hear this music, are only fooling ourselves with that academic argument.
When we are afraid to talk about our work in this way, when we focus on technique (“I used a #10 camel’s hair brush on gessoed linen canvas”) or our education (“I studied at this university, or under this famous artist…”), when we resort to cliche’ (“I just love color!”), when when we say nothing and insist our art “speaks for itself”, we shortchange our audience.
We leave them to make their own connection. But we’ve eliminated the human interaction. We say, “No need for me to reveal myself as human, or as a feeling/caring/grieving/loving/being person. You either get it or you don’t. So there!”
I believe, as artists, we can do better than this. I believe our responsibility to our customer, to our audience, to the world, is deeper than this.
There are those who will simply not agree with me, and that’s okay. (Just don’t write to tell me, okay? Not today. Not about this.) Maybe my hospice training is removing another protective layer off my psyche. Maybe my age is showing here. Maybe I’ve always been “too sensitive” for my own good.
There’s a time and a place for more formal, stuffy artist statements, I get that. And hey, I’m still nudging closer to my own truth. Haven’t gotten it down to half a page yet.
But to quote one of my favorite writers….(I love Anne Lamotte and I welcome the opportunity to throw her words at you today):
….Then two things happened. One was that I got obsessed with something my best friend had said right before she died, when she was in a wheelchair, wearing a wig to cover her baldness, weighing almost no pounds, but very serene, very alive. We were at Macy’s. I was modeling a short dress for her that I thought my boyfriend would like. But then I asked whether it made me look big in the hips, and Pammy said, as clear and kind as a woman can be, “Annie? You really don’t have that kind of time.” I just got it. I got it deep in my being. And all of a sudden, two years ago, it began ringing through the chambers of my head again: You don’t have that kind of time.
You really don’t have that kind of time.
We do not know when our last day on earth will be. Maybe we got fifty years, maybe fifty weeks. Maybe ten minutes. There is a certain clarity when we do, and that is one of the many gifts of hospice.
Say what you mean to say. Make the work that is important to you. Share it with the world in a meaningful way. We’re big enough, we’re strong enough.
That’s why we were given the gift of being creative.
And so I say to you all, “Artist! Embrace the power of thy ample heart!”